Cancer, Lent, and the Discipline of Celebration

This past Monday we had a meeting with the reconstructive surgeon who will be working on Jenny after the oncology surgeon is done with her.  We didn’t learn anything particularly new, but we did get a clearer picture of the path before us.  It was a tough day, and we can really feel the clock ticking down until next Tuesday when two things happen to Jenny’s body: The tumor will be permanently removed (good news),  and a permanent & lifelong alteration including scarring, artificial reconstruction, loss of glandular and immunological functionality, and loss of feeling and sensation (sad news).  We are trying to be mature & sane enough people to feel both things at once, but it is a tall order.  We oscillate from relief that the tumor will be gone, and grieving over what will be a real loss for Jenny.  The joy & sorrow are mingled together inextricably.  

For most people, myself included, the most noticeable thing about Lent is the spiritual disciplines related to asceticism and self denial.  For those who observe Lent, the most difficult disciplines that we observe to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday are the disciplines related to penitence and fasting.  Can I really give up meat and drink for 40 days?  Can I keep my prayer rule?  Etc.  Etc.  This year is different though.  I feel compelled by our circumstances to be continually in prayer, and fasting isn’t quite the same when your appetite is mediocre at best.  In other words, what should be a discipline is a natural part of my life right now because of what we are going through.  The part of my Lenten journey that has taken the most prayer, work, and discipline this year is the discipline of celebration.  Let me explain.

Traditionally, Lent is a 40 day fast before Easter (or Pascha) used for self examination, repentance, and self denial as a sort of “spring cleaning” before the Great Feast of Easter.  However, if you count on a calendar from Ash Wednesday until Easter, you will see that there are actually 46 days in Lent.  Why is that?  It is because there are six Sundays in that time period and Christians are never supposed to fast on Sundays… every Sunday is a mini-Easter, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection.  Subtract those six Sundays, and you end up with 40 days for fasting.

So here we have, embedded in the season of penitence, six days where we are basically required to feast and give thanks (I have heard, though it may be apocryphal, that the the early church even threatened excommunication to those fasting on Sundays).  The joy & sorrow are mingled together inextricably.  Even in Lent, the Church has made space for the spiritual discipline of celebration.  The necessity and wisdom of this had never occurred to me until my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Usually, the Sundays are the easy part… not this year.  I find myself in a situation where celebration, joy, and thanksgiving are profoundly difficult.

So this Sunday, I came home from church with my family, took my son into the backyard with a beer in my hand, let the sun shine on my face, and celebrated…. celebrated the beautiful weather, my beautiful family… celebrated all the friends and family who have been so supportive… celebrated that medical technology has come so far in the last 50 years, and that this isn’t a death sentence for Jenny and that if all goes well she can look forward to resuming a more-or-less normal life…

As I sat there, I was reminded of a quote from Tolkien… if you are not familiar with the Lord of the Rings, it is from a scene near the end where two of the heroes, Sam and Frodo, are beyond hope and defeat seems eminent.  They lay down in a forsaken wilderness under “The Shadow” and Sam looks up.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

So I sat there, and I celebrated… celebrated the Resurrection of our Savior who has trampled down death by death, who will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and because of who “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore,” for the former things will pass away.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give him thanks and praise.


~ by jdballard on March 7, 2012.

3 Responses to “Cancer, Lent, and the Discipline of Celebration”

  1. Thanks to our Father!

  2. Jen and Jason, my thoughts and prayer are focused on your strength this week. Sue

  3. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
    New International Version (NIV)
    16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

    ^A wonderful lady from my church read your blog and thought of this verse.

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